President Donald Trump’s foreign policy – like his other policies – has seemed more about self-gratification than national interest. He quit the Iran nuclear deal, undoing years of diplomacy, largely to erase part of the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Assisted by his administration, the current president poses as a hero forcing the Iranian establishment to succumb to his will. Trump says Iran must renegotiate the landmark deal that Iran, the US and five other world powers agreed to and the UN Security Council endorsed or there will be “severe consequences.”
Trump’s subsequent offer to meet with his Iranian counterpart “without preconditions” produced an understandable feeling of whiplash, a week after he appeared to threaten Iran with destruction. During his campaign, Trump promised an “unpredictable” foreign policy. It is not clear whether he knew at the time about the Nixon-Kissinger “madman” doctrine of the 1970s. More likely, this was preening bluster, intended to capture the world’s attention. Trump’s offer to meet Iran’s leadership seems like a similar piece of posturing.
While some ordinary Iranians seized on the offer as a way to stop the downward spiral in the economy, Iranian officials were more restrained.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, while not rejecting the offer categorically, tweeted, “Iran & US had 2 yrs of talks. With EU/E3+Russia+China, we produced a unique multilateral accord—the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. It’s been working. US can only blame itself for pulling out & leaving the table. Threats, sanctions & PR stunts won’t work. Try respect: for Iranians & for int’l commitments.”
It is unclear if Trump had thought about his offer in advance or was merely responding off the cuff to a question at a press conference, but Iran’s abysmal economy has most likely played a role in tempting Trump to make the offer, hoping that Iran out of desperation would respond positively.
Thanks in large part to Trump’s decision to quit the Iran deal – and the months of uncertainty that preceded his announcement in May — Iran’s economy is in a chaotic situation. The rial has lost 25 percent of its value against the dollar just in the last 10 days. According to a shocking July 30 report by the semi-official Iran Labor News Agency, in the last few months, the working class has lost 72 percent of its power to purchase basic needs. In just the last two Iranian calendar months (May 22 to July 22) the official inflation rate has grown 8 percent compared to the month before (April 21 to May 21).
But despite the growing desperation of ordinary Iranians, the Trump administration has overestimated the power of sanctions to change the identity of the Iranian government and has underestimated Iran’s will to resist such pressure. As noted elsewhere, John Sawers, one of the British nuclear team negotiators in 2005, and later chief of the UK’s intelligence service, MI6, was told in 2005 that “Iran will start uranium enrichment even at the cost of war.” Sawers warned his Iranian counterpart that the US would take military action if Iran moved ahead. But Iran nevertheless broke the International Atomic Energy Agency’s seals on enrichment equipment and has continued enriching uranium to this date, despite paralyzing sanctions and coming to the brink of war with both the US and Israel. Due to sanctions, Iran has lost $185 billion between 2011 and 2016 just in oil revenue, according to IMF estimates.
A second reason why the Trump strategy appears doomed to fail is that it is tipping the balance in Iran’s internal politics away from pragmatists to more hardline elements.
Radicals who dominate the deep state have been waiting for the opportunity Trump has provided to sideline those in control of the administration since President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013. During the nuclear negotiations that ended in 2015, the centrist foreign minister, Zarif, not only sat with his American counterpart, John Kerry, but strolled with him along the Rhône River in Geneva; an unforgivable sin in the eyes of hardliners.
After Trump made his offer, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, issued a fiery letter in which he sought to create a fait accompli that no one, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could undo. The IRGC seeks to prevent another episode of “heroic flexibility,” like that offered by Khamenei in 2013, which paved the path to nuclear talks and eventual agreement with the Americans and other world powers.
“Mr. Trump!” Jafari’s statement read, “Iran is not North Korea to give a positive response to your demand for a meeting. You should know that the Iranian nation…will never allow their officials to negotiate and meet with the Great Satan.” He added, “You will take this wish to the grave to see the day when the Islamic Republic of Iran demands for a meeting with you or is allowed by the nation to meet you. You will never see that day.”
Yadollah Javani, an influential IRGC theoretician and the editor of the weekly Sobhe Sadiq, the political organ of the IRGC, wrote an editorial in the July 30 issue entitled “Which goal is Trump pursuing?” The article rejects the idea that Trump’s “threats, rhetoric and saber rattling” are aimed at a war with Iran. “The strategic goal of Mr. Trump is to create an environment to force Islamic Republic officials, through threats and psychological operations, to come to the negotiating table,” the editorial said. “Trump abandoned the nuclear deal in order to create unrest and chaos in Iran through economic and psychological pressure. [He thinks that] as a result, Islamic Republic officials out of fear of domestic collapse will bow and accept talks.”
Javani said that this will not happen because “the Iranian nation and the Islamic establishment have learned a lesson from the nuclear deal: America under no circumstances is trustworthy to talk to…and also the Iranian nation learned that our economic problems cannot be resolved through talking with America.”
The editorial concluded that the US sanctions have created a “golden opportunity” for Iran to unite and rely on and develop the country’s domestic capabilities.
Trump apparently realizes what is at stake. He says he believes in talks “especially when you’re talking about potentials of war and death.” So, if at some point it feels it has been backed into a corner, would Iran resist the temptation to disrupt the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, even if that act touches off a conflict with unforeseeable consequences?
Instead of the heroic, world-changing, deal-making president he dreams of being, Trump could well be an agent of more pointless bloodshed in the Middle East and economic disruption throughout the world.
Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless